Olive Senior 1941-
(Full name Olive Marjorie Senior) Jamaican short story writer, poet, and nonfiction writer.
Senior is regarded as a distinctive voice in West Indian literature. Critics have praised her reproduction of authentic Jamaican Creole in her written work, as well as her insightful exploration of such issues as identity, cultural nationalism, class stratification, and the oppressive impact of religion on women and the poor. Her portraits of the lives of Jamaican children and women struggling to transcend ethnic, class, and gender roles are viewed as notable literary achievements of West Indian fiction.
Senior was born December 23, 1941, in western Jamaica, in an isolated area known for its hilly, limestone terrain. This early environment figures prominently in her poetry and fiction. As a child she attended Montego Bay High School for Girls, where she excelled in her studies and founded a school literary magazine. During this time she also began to contribute articles for The Daily Gleaner, the major newspaper on the island. After high school Senior traveled to Wales briefly to study journalism, and then she attended Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. She received her B.A. degree in journalism from Carleton in 1967. Around this time she began to write her first short stories. In 1980 several of her poems appeared in the influential poetry collection Jamaica Women. She worked as a freelance writer and researcher as well as an editor of the influential periodical Jamaica Journal from 1982 to 1989. Senior has been a guest lecturer and writer-in-residence in both the Caribbean and North America. She has received several prestigious awards for her work, including the Institute of Jamaica Centenary Medal in 1980, the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1987, the Silver Musgrave Medal for Literature in 1989, and the F. G. Bressani Literary Prize for poetry in 1994. She makes her home in Toronto, Canada, but spends much of her time in Kingston, Jamaica.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Many of Senior's stories are concerned with issues of ethnicity and identity. Summer Lightning and Other Stories (1986), Senior's first collection of short fiction, is comprised of ten short stories set in rural Jamaican communities, utilizes Jamaican Creole, and focuses on the perspective of poor, rural children. In “Ballad,” a young schoolgirl, Lenora, is reproached by her teacher for writing a eulogy on the local harlot, Miss Rilla. Told Miss Rilla is not an appropriate subject for her admiration, Lenora disagrees and describes her identification with Miss Rilla's alienation from the community and refusal to submit to oppressive societal expectations. Several stories, such as “Bright Thursdays,” concern the alienation that results from moving children from home to home, usually in search of financial security and social mobility. Senior's second collection, Arrival of the Snake-Woman and Other Stories (1989), is viewed as a more expansive book that switches the focus of the stories to more urban, middle-class settings. Reviewers note that she also experiments with the stories in the collection and utilizes standard English more than Jamaican Creole. In the title story, a mysterious, exotic Indian woman causes much disruption among the women of a small Jamaican village. Over time the woman overcomes the alienation of being the outsider and gains the trust and friendship of the other women. Reviewers argue that the story signifies the resistance to change and the fear of outsiders and nonconformity in isolated West Indian communities. In “Two Grandmothers,” a young girl juxtaposes the worlds of her two grandmothers through a series of monologues: Grandmother Del lives in rural poverty but is blessed with a generous and caring community; Grandmother Elaine lives in affluence in the city but lacks the camaraderie of a close community of friends and neighbors. Senior's most recent collection, Discerner of Hearts (1995), includes nine stories that once again focus on female characters who struggle to transcend a rigid hierarchal class structure. These stories are set in Jamaica and in various times from the colonial period to the present day.
Critics commend Senior's short fiction as insightful and humorous and identify the strength of her writing as the creation of richly detailed portrayals of Jamaican community life. Some view these depictions as a form of cultural nationalism and an affirmation of the value of the rural, small-town experience. Senior's use of language is a recurring topic of critical interest; reviewers consider her utilization of Jamaican Creole and oral storytelling traditions as powerful narrative devices. In particular, her well-crafted use of Standard English and Jamaican Creole denotes issues of hierarchy and class stratification in Jamaican society. Senior's stories are also noted for their interplay between tradition and modernity as well as their sensitive representations of the female experience from a woman's perspective. Themes of alienation, displacement, child abuse, racial discrimination, colonial victimization, and the search for personal and cultural identities have been named as the key motifs of Senior's short fiction. Lauded for her rich depiction of Jamaican culture and her insight into the human condition, Senior is regarded as a major figure in the development of Jamaican literature.
Summer Lightning and Other Stories 1986
Arrival of the Snake-Woman and Other Stories 1989
Discerner of Hearts 1995
The Message Is Change: A Perspective on the 1972 General Elections (nonfiction) 1972
A-Z of Jamaican Heritage (nonfiction) 1984
Talking of Trees (poetry) 1986
Working Miracles: Women's Lives in the English-speaking Caribbean (nonfiction) 1991
Gardening in the Tropics (poetry) 1994
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SOURCE: O'Callaghan, Evelyn. “Feminist Consciousness: European/American Theory, Jamaican Stories.” Journal of Caribbean Studies 6, no. 2 (spring 1988): 143-62.
[In the following essay, O'Callaghan considers the political orientation of contemporary West Indian women's fiction through an examination of four short story collections written by Jamaican female authors, including Senior's Summer Lightning.]
The impetus for this paper was a desire to explore the political orientation of contemporary West Indian women's fiction. Four recently published collections of short stories by Jamaican women seemed a manageable starting point for a preliminary investigation: Olive Senior's Summer Lightning;1 Hazel Campbell's Woman's Tongue;2 The Sistren Collective's Lionheart Gal;3 and Opal Palmer Adisa's Bake Face and Other Guava Stories.4 Inevitably, a theoretical “clearing the decks” has made comprehensive textual analysis impossible given the restrictions of such an essay, so I'd like to start by briefly generalizing about the scope and content of each book.
Summer Lightning's ten stories of rural Jamaican community life are, in my opinion, the finest of the collections. The majority of tales feature a female character, but the dominant perspective is that of the child, and it is evocation of the child's world, an...
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SOURCE: Gerschel, Liz. “Caribbean Childhoods.” Third World Quarterly 10, no. 2 (April 1988): 995-98.
[In the following review, Gerschel praises the well-crafted stories in Summer Lightning, concluding that it is “an outstanding collection by an extremely talented writer.”]
One of the best books published in 1987 was undoubtedly Olive Senior's Summer Lightning and Other Stories. Told in dynamic and powerful language, this perceptive, humorous and poignant first collection reflects the author's own experience of life in rural Jamaica, and the inter-related and often conflicting worlds of children and adults. Although over the last few years there has been increasing interest in the works of black American women writers, the literary strengths of Caribbean woman have not received the same attention. This is a pity, as there is no lack of good writing by women from the Caribbean.
A significant and promising development has occurred, however, with the establishment by the Commonwealth Foundation in December 1987 of a new prize ‘to reward and encourage the upsurge of new Commonwealth writing and ensure that writers of merit reach a wider audience outside their country of origin’. The first Commonwealth Writers' Prize was awarded to Olive Senior for Summer Lightning, after she was runner-up to the Canadian, Margaret Atwood, in the Caribbean and Canada region....
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SOURCE: Senior, Olive, and Charles H. Rowell. “An Interview with Olive Senior.” Callaloo 11, no. 3 (summer 1988): 480-90.
[In the following interview, Senior discusses the major influences on her writing, the function of her creative work, and the implications of being a Jamaican writer.]
The following interview was conducted through the mails during the period of March-May, 1988, between Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S.A., and Kingston, Jamaica, West Indies, two months following my meeting and talking with Olive Senior in Jamaica.
—C. H. R.
[Rowell]: If you had to assess your past in terms of your relationships with the arts, what would you say are the probable forces, experiences, or individuals that motivated you to become and shaped you as a writer—a poet and a fictionist?
[Senior]: I didn't grow up influenced by what I suppose you would call “the arts.” I was born and grew up in rural Jamaica and my early childhood was far removed in space and time from any substantive external contacts and influences. My major influence then was the oral tradition—storytelling, “hot” preaching, praying and testifying (for religious influence was strong), concerts, “tea-meetings,” and so on. Later came formal exposure to “English” literature in high school, encouraged by a succession of...
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SOURCE: Pollard, Velma. “An Introduction to the Poetry and Fiction of Olive Senior.” Callaloo 11, no. 3 (summer 1988): 540-45.
[In the following essay, Pollard surveys the key thematic concerns in Senior's short stories and poetry.]
Short stories and poems by Olive Senior have been appearing in journals and anthologies in Jamaica and overseas for more than a decade. It was not however till December 1985 that the first complete volume reached the bookstands—a collection of poems, Talking of Trees, published by Calabash Press, Jamaica. A few months later (early 1986), a collection of short stories, Summer Lightning and other stories, now in its second printing, was published by Longman, U.K. This paper discusses the more common themes in Senior's prose and poetry and comments briefly on their treatment.
Senior's short stories and poetry are the work of a creative talent of great sensitivity which expresses tremendous understanding of the human condition, particularly that of poor people both rural and urban. The attempt to slot her writing into a particular genre immediately gives one an uncomfortable feeling. For the work is knit together by a common landscape and a recurring concern for humanity. Both poetry and prose bring the country paths of Senior's childhood and the urban experiences of her young womanhood into focus. The themes of both concern the experiences...
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SOURCE: Pollard, Velma. “Mothertongue Voices in the Writing of Olive Senior and Lorna Goodison.” In Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia, edited by Susheila Nasta, pp. 238-53. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Pollard analyzes the language of Senior's stories and Lorna Goodison's verse in order to investigate how the two authors “use the complex language situation” of the West Indies “to their advantage in the act of creating, particularly in terms of character identification.”]
Jean D'Costa, Jamaican linguist and foremost Caribbean writer of children's novels, contends that the West Indian writer who wishes to satisfy himself, his local audience and his foreign audience, must evolve a ‘literary dialect’ which not only satisfies both these audiences but also is an authentic representation of the ‘language culture’ of his community.1 And Garth St Omer, one of the better known of the West Indian novelists, comments on the dilemma of the post-colonial writer who must not only represent the society honestly but must be understood by all in the society.2 Both these writers are addressing a situation that is the context of this discussion on Mothertongue. The tension between the ability to use a number of overlapping codes and the necessity to be understood not only within the society...
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SOURCE: Gafoor, Ameena. “The Image of the Indo-Caribbean Woman in Olive Senior's ‘The Arrival of the Snake-Woman.’” Callaloo 16, no. 1 (winter 1993): 34-43.
[In the following essay, Gafoor elucidates Senior's depiction of the Caribbean female experience in her story “The Arrival of the Snake-Woman,” contending that the story “seems to present a culmination of all the phases of readjustment and accommodation inherent in migration and displacement.”]
This paper looks at the portrayal of the Indian woman in the contemporary literature of the anglophone Caribbean. It attempts to examine the processes of readjustment and accommodation, acculturation, interculturation and indigenization in its attempt to explore Indo-Caribbean female experience: the psychosocial and spiritual growth and the quest for identity within the context of the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean. It explores the Indian woman's claim to a place as home in the multiracial, multicultural Caribbean vis à vis a tradition of colonial discourse which privileges European possession of the “discovered” lands of the New World while several culturally discrete groups, displaced by colonialism and indentureship, jostle for ontological space and identity in the colonial social reality. The dominant transplanted group in the Caribbean can be seen to have a protest registered against disinheritance and dispossession in...
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SOURCE: Patteson, Richard F. “The Fiction of Olive Senior: Traditional Society and the Wider World.” ARIEL 24, no. 1 (January 1993): 13-33.
[In the following essay, Patteson regards Senior as a dominant voice in the development of a postcolonial West Indian literature and delineates the defining characteristics of the stories comprising Summer Lightning and The Arrival of the Snake-Woman.]
In his foreword to Michel de Certeau's Heterologies, Wlad Godzich points out that in many parts of the world the old colonial order has been supplanted by a “neo-colonialism of center and periphery” in which the “former colonial powers together with other economically dominant nations constitute the core whereas the former colonies form the periphery. The latter admits of measurement in relation to the core as an index of its degree of development, where it is of course implicit that the core's own development is normative and somehow ‘natural’” (xi-xii). Nowhere is this more true than in the Caribbean where, as Olive Senior has put it, “a new center-periphery system is evolving which is based in Washington and a new cultural system is evolving located somewhere between Dallas and Hollywood” (“Interview” 487). The problems inherent in the literary expression of cultural identity come into particularly sharp focus in the twelve nations of the English-speaking Caribbean because the...
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SOURCE: Thieme, John. “‘Mixed Worlds’: Olive Senior's Summer Lightning.” Kunapipi 16, no. 2 (1994): 90-5.
[In the following essay, Thieme finds several of the stories in Summer Lightning to be autobiographical in nature and focused on the issue of identity.]
Superficially the bulk of the stories in Olive Senior's Summer Lightning (1986) are primarily naturalistic accounts of a particular experience of growing up in rural Jamaica in the 1940's and 1950's. The stories repeatedly construct a situation in which a child-protagonist, usually a girl, has been displaced from the peasant home of her early youth and relocated in a middle-class household. Senior has said that this situation replicates the experience of her own youth,1 which involved a similar movement between houses and made her socially, as well as racially, ‘a child of mixed worlds, socialized unwittingly and simultaneously into both’,2 and the reader who knows this, even if s/he is anxious to avoid seeing the text simply as a fictionalized transcription of aspects of the author's own experience, may well be tempted to assume that its range is narrowly circumscribed by the particular nature of this situation represented. In fact, although the stories of Summer Lightning do work extremely well as naturalistic accounts of Jamaican rural life and owe much to their being rooted in concrete...
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SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. Review of Discerner of Hearts, by Olive Senior. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 455.
[In the following review, Thorpe provides a favorable evaluation of Discerner of Hearts.]
The nine stories in Olive Senior's collection Discerner of Hearts are set in Jamaica, from the colonial period to the present day. Unfortunately, they are not chronologically arranged, so that “Zig Zag,” which clearly, like the opening title story, is pre-Independence, comes at the end, after “The Cho Choo Vine,” which glances at Rastafarianism. In most, black is not yet beautiful and white is the index of social advantage. Taken together, the collection, regardless of chronology, reflects a constricted society whose relationships are overdetermined by class and color; caste-power, or the lack of it, is constantly felt.
The viewpoint, with one exception, is female, in first or third person. At the center are two monologues which subtly blend Jamaican patois with Standard English. In “You Think I Mad, Miss?” Francina Mytella Jones goes from car to car in the street, begging to the accompaniment of a fractured litany of her betrayed life, while in “Swimming in the Ba'Ma Grass” Miss Lyn utters a poignant elegy for a husband murdered by a trigger-happy policeman, who is the law. These stories and the collection as a whole need a glossary for the...
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SOURCE: Lalla, Barbara. “Leavings.” In Defining Jamaican Fiction: Marronage and the Discourse of Survival, pp. 104-14. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
[In the following excerpt, Lalla views “Country of the One-Eyed God” as “a study in marronage because it is a tale of leaving and being left and consequently of the cold logic behind seemingly irrational violence.”]
Marronage results from fragmentation internal to the Jamaican setting and from a tension between local and imperial cultures.1 The growth of a national consciousness sensitizes local writers to separation of communities within the island and to the consequences of abandonment as some Jamaicans select voluntary exile and others are left behind. Moreover, beyond the connection between the dispossessed woman and the deprived child lies a chain effect that links the abandoned child to the violently resentful and demanding youth and eventually to the adult as predator. The gathering hostility of Icy Barton (“I killed you totally in my heart,” Thomas 159) diffuses as she reunites with her mother, but this outcome does not hold true for all children whose mothers leave “to go to foreign” (Senior, “Country of the One-Eye God” 21). Senior explores the end result of metamorphosis from such childhood in a consciousness tormented simultaneously by exclusion and claustrophobia.
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SOURCE: Flockemann, Miki. “Asian Diasporas, Contending Identities and New Configurations: Stories by Agnes Sam and Olive Senior.” English in Africa 25, no. 1 (May 1998): 71-86.
[In the following essay, Flockemann compares the treatment of ethnic and cultural identity in Senior's “Arrival of the Snake-Woman” and Agnes Sam's “Jesus is Indian.”]
Her arrival represented a loosening of the bonds that had previously bound her, that bind all of us to our homes. Cut free from her past, she was thus free of the duties and obligations that tie us so tightly to one another, sometimes in a stranglehold.
—Olive Senior, “Arrival of the Snake-Woman” (1989, 44)
“I am cut off from India. I am cut off from South Africa. I am not rooted anywhere. … I am not part of the Asian community; I am not part of the British community and I have never really been part of the exiled community. My interests are in Africa. I am African.”
—Agnes Sam, Interview (Myburg 1991, 4)
In the introductory section to his Southern African Literatures (1995), Michael Chapman notes the need for a comparative study of Southern African literatures across genre, language and geographic boundaries within Africa as part of a broader process of democratisation (1995, 10). However,...
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SOURCE: Lalla, Barbara. “Registering Woman: Senior's Zig-zag Discourse and Code-Switching in Jamaican Narrative.” ARIEL 29, no. 4 (October 1998): 83-98.
[In the following essay, Lalla traces the changing language in Senior's story “Zig-zag,” arguing that “the shifting experiences and perspectives of the child protagonist emerge through a multifaceted and shifting discourse.”]
The traumatic process of becoming a woman, in the setting of a brown, rural, middle-class Jamaican family, is a dominant factor in shaping the language of Olive Senior's short story “Zig-zag,” in Discerner of Hearts. Jamaican Creole, Standard English, and intermediate varieties of these comprise Jamaican discourse, and “Zig-zag” shifts between the codes and intersects scribal discourse with suggestions of orality. Through these shifts, “Zig-zag” traces the emotional upheavals of its central character, Sadie, one of two daughters in a household fraught with tensions about mixed roots.
Sadie's sister, Muffet, is older, fairer, better behaved, admired, and inevitably politely spoken. Her father is withdrawn, obsessed with mysterious, apparently intellectual work that no one can actually define but that we naturally associate with written and therefore Standard English. The household reflects the language continuum of the larger society. Her mother clings anxiously to the acrolect,...
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SOURCE: Pollard, Velma. “Images of Women in the Short Stories of Olive Senior.” In The Woman, the Writer and Caribbean Society, edited by Helen Pyne-Timothy, pp. 118-25. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies Publications, 1998.
[In the following essay, Pollard considers the depiction of women in Senior's short stories.]
At a time when our societies are fighting silent and not so silent battles for recognition of women's efforts inside and outside of the family milieu, this [essay] looks at some modern Caribbean writing and discusses the image of women portrayed there. I believe that the discussion will support the argument that Caribbean fiction, inspired as it is by Caribbean reality, has had no difficulty in describing women who play positive leadership roles, taking their rightful place. It suggests further that, where Caribbean fiction is part of the school's curriculum, there need be no fear that the next generation will be unaware of women's contribution to the building of our nations.
This chapter will review texts from two collections of short stories by Olive Senior, Summer Lightning and The Arrival of the Snake-Woman.1 Senior's texts have been chosen for several reasons: They are well-written; they are as suitable for general reading as for school and university study; they treat the lives of people at different social levels in the...
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SOURCE: Renk, Kathleen J. “Reinscribing the Garden: Female Tricksters at the Crossroads.” In Caribbean Shadows and Victorian Ghosts: Woman's Writing and Decolonization, pp. 121-50. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Renk discusses the protagonist of “Arrival of the Snake-Woman” as a trickster figure.]
According to Ramabai Espinet, Mama Glo is a “benign and powerful” figure in Trinidadian folklore represented as a combination of a woman and a watersnake (48). In Espinet's poem “Mama Glo,” this figure is presented as the harbinger of the “womanvoice” that “breaks the ascendancy darkness with crystal light.” Mama Glo, like Kincaid's Lucy and Senior's snake-woman, is a female trickster who reinvests the “demonic” mythic characteristics of the snake and the female derived from the garden myth. Drawing on the positive representation of the snake as the rainbow serpent god, Da in Dahomean myth, the god whose figure “shapes” the globe,1 and African Caribbean representations of the trickster, these characterizations reverse the demonization of the “exotic,” evil female in the garden myth while expressing alternative modes of being that make possible a reseeing and reshaping of the Caribbean and, beyond that, the world.
Set in colonial Trinidad, Senior's “Arrival of the Snake-Woman” presents a female...
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Beittel, Mark, and Giovanna Covi. “Talking of Households: Olive Senior's Postcolonial Identities.” In Nationalism vs. Internationalism: (Inter)National Dimensions of Literatures in English, edited by Wolfgang Zach and Ken L. Goodwin, pp. 389-97. Tubingen, Germany: Stauffenburg, 1996.
Explores Senior's treatment of family dynamics in her works.
Donnell, Alison. “The Short Fiction of Olive Senior.” In Caribbean Women Writers: Fiction in English, pp. 117-43. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Senior's short fiction.
Goddard, Horace I. Review of Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories, by Olive Senior. Kola 12, no. 1 (winter 2000): 61-2.
Favorable evaluation of Discerner of Hearts.
Morgan, Paula. “East/West Indian/Woman/Other: At the Crossroads of Gender and Ethnicity.” MaComère 3 (2000): 107-22.
Examines the portrayal of women in Arrival of the Snake-Woman, contending that “Senior raises salient issues that are being negotiated even today.”
Renk, Kathleen J. “The Holy Family in the Colonial Garden.” In Caribbean Shadows and Victorian Ghosts: Woman's Writing and Decolonization, pp. 80-3. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999....
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